Constitution, devolution and minorities

A national debate on the proposed new constitution commenced with the recent session of the Constitutional Council and drafting of proposals by different Committees. To set the tone, President Maithripala Sirisena referred to the conceptual positions with regard to the proposed constitution in his recent interview with The Hindu. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and Opposition Leader R Sampanthan made statements in Parliament and Northern Chief Minister C V Wigneswaran also made few comments in the Provincial Council and outside.

Talking to Meera Sirinivasan of The Hindu, President Sirisena did not hesitate to give his honest opinion. “People of the south are scared of the word federal. People of the north are scared of the word unitary. What we should do is not fight over these two words. We should come up with a formula that is acceptable to all,” he said.

He went on to say that it takes maturity to understand devolution. We cannot satisfy the extremist elements either in the north or in the south and we have to do what is good for, and acceptable to the majority. Instead of getting to serious arguments over these words, we should do whatever is possible without wasting time over these arguments, he said.

C V Wigneswaran

Wigneswaran, who is known for blowing hot and cold, talked in a milder tone last week. He called on the southern people to initiate a dialogue with the people of north, saying that the people of the north are largely misunderstood and misrepresented.

Tamil political parties in Sri Lanka believe that the only solution to the national problem is the devolution of power. A leading member of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), parliamentarian M A Sumanthiran recently said that the need for a new Constitution is felt by all and in that the process the Tamil minority seeks power devolution arrangement to give autonomy to the traditional Tamil regions in the north and east of the island within a ‘United Sri Lanka’.

Tamil Diaspora group

It is high time that the leaders of the two communities pushed aside the policy of playing to the gallery to the backseat and grabbed the opportunity with both hands to deliver results. The need of the hour is the genuine desire for consensus in a magnanimous give and take policy. Both President Sirisena and Premier Wickremesinghe have shown their willingness to take even ‘unpopular’ decisions for the sake of the long term interests of the country and the people.

It is unfortunate under these circumstances the lack of reciprocity on the part of the Tamil leadership. There seems to be major differences between the TNA Leader Sampanthan and newly formed Tamil People’s Council (TPC) of Northern Chief Minister Wigneswaran. While Wigneswaran has been taking a critical line on the government, a powerful section of the TNA led by Sampanthan and Sumanthiran expresses desire to work with the government.

The leading Tamil Diaspora group and the so-called transitional government of Tamils demand more powers than even the powers enjoyed by Indian States under the Federal system. While Indian Central Government can dissolve State Assemblies or take over the States and govern it under the Centre-appointed Governor, the diaspora demands that Colombo should not be entrusted with powers to dissolve Provincial Councils. However, the government has the responsibility of preserving the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country. Hence, it is essential for the government to retain the power to dissolve a provincial council.

Tamil political parties

The Tamil Diaspora demands a similar system as in Australia, where the Canberra Government cannot dissolve State Parliaments. Furthermore, Australian States can deal with foreign governments direct without going through the Central Government. The Australian States also can establish diplomatic offices in foreign capitals for trade relations. Although, Tamil Diaspora makes such demands, the majority political parties in the South will not support such excessive posers to Provincial Councils.

At the same time, an agreement with Tamil political parties regarding the powers to be devolved to the Provincial Councils is essential to find smooth sailing of the new Constitution in the proposed Constitution Assembly. While the South is vehemently against the proposal for devolving police and land powers to the Provincial Councils, the Tamil parties will not support the new Constitution without at least land powers.

New Constitution

Another section that should not be sidelined once again in constitution making is the upcountry Tamils of Indian origin. The Tamil Progressive Alliance (TPA) urged the government to stop referring to the up-country Tamil community as “Indian Tamils” and in future to refer to them as “Indian origin Malayaga Tamils” in the new Constitution. The TPA also stated that the devolution of powers vested in the central government, provincial councils and local government bodies should be clarified through the new Constitution.

The TPA parliamentarian Muthulingham said since attaining Independence in 1948, up-country Tamils have felt that they were excluded from the government and development projects carried out by the government. When compared to other nationalities, they are far behind in many sectors, including health and education. This is a result of wrong decisions made by previous governments. They no longer want to be discriminated against. He added that affirmative action with regard to improving the living standards of the people should be included in the Constitution.

President Sirisena, in his interview with The Hindu, said that in drafting the new Constitution, we are looking at a Constitution that will strengthen the reconciliation between the communities. “These things will have to be done keeping the southern Sinhala-Buddhist masses also satisfied. If the southern people are opposed to certain things, we cannot have a successful reconciliation process. Hence our endeavour towards reconciliation must also be acceptable to the Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims and other communities. That is not an easy task. But we have to do this challenging job. We should not allow any room for another war in our country,” he emphasized.

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